Spiritan Features

Reflecting on some elements of Mission in Ethiopia. Martin Kelly C.S.Sp., recently returned to Ireland from Ethiopia

The 1970s in the east African country

I first arrived in Ethiopia in 1975. The country was then in the throes of violence which would escalate into the ‘Red Terror’. Spiritans walked into a critical situation in terms of our missionary work. Excellent preliminary surveys had predicted the 1974 coup which saw Emperor Haile Selassie overthrown, but under-estimated the Orthodox Church’s presence. Soon we had a dilemma: To ignore this presence and carry on? To collaborate? To go elsewhere?  After a few years of debate and research we decided in 1977, with our bishop’s blessing, to collaborate.  


In 1983 we were invited to be part of a joint Orthodox / Catholic first-evangelisation programme in the Hamar region.  It was a huge challenge but we were very well supported.  Among the many fruits – direct or indirect – were the setting-up of the first three parishes in the pastoralist areas of South Omo, several others in the lowlands and dozens in the highlands.  The impact of the work of over 1,000 past-pupils of the Clergy Training Centre in Chencha can’t be quantified. It was a privilege for me to play even a minor part in the singular apostolate.

Development programme

Our development programme has now been running for some 35 years, working with local partners, communities and donors. In that time the development world has changed beyond recognition, becoming more specialised and demanding, with strategic plans, needs assessments, evaluations etc. But Information Technology has facilitated the work. Most significantly, work once done mostly by outsiders is now done, and mostly done better, by Ethiopians –  a true sign of real progress. 


I recall droughts and famines, the expansion of cultivated land, the erosion and de-forestation and the reduction of wild life, but Ethiopian endurance and creativity has helped the people survive and thrive. Memories abound: Timqet processions in Jinka; the faithful in Saula returning home in the pitch dark of an Easter morning with tapers lighting the way; the stirring singing of Egzeo Meharene Christos (Lord, have mercy on us, O Christ) by huge congregations or by a mere handful in Besheda; the materially simplest of lives in a Hamar hut contrasting with our materialism and affluence; the multiplicity of languages and cultures; the beauty of the land;  the blistering heat before, and the relief after, the rains; the hope that famine, part of the psyche in Ethiopia, was averted for at least a year. 

I will always remember farmers in the 1980s, emaciated and in despair, trying for a third time that year to get a harvest, without success. This wasn’t a once-off. On top of all that, the man-made horrors of the ‘Red Terror’, the forced re-settlement and conscription were needless tragedies.  Population has almost quadrupled in 40 years. Other changes – school / clinic / hospital / road / water / electricity and phone networks – have been on an even larger scale.  Life expectancy is up by some 15 years.

My predominant memories of Ethiopia will be of a culturally sophisticated people – polite, persevering and welcoming. A heartfelt “Thank you!” to all. 


Now back in Ireland, Fr. Martin missioned for many years in Ethiopia.